Friday, May 11, 2007

Westland - Chapter 1

The city of Westland has more buildings than it does people these days. It’s many spires tower over it's mammoth walls and lose themselves against the looming black granite mountains that rise behind the city. Stretching for miles on either side flows low rolling farmland, so that from on high the once regal city stands out like an red ruby floating in a sea of vibrant green. Two hundred years ago the rich soil in this land was prized by kings and commoners alike, and from it grew a nation renown for the size and vigor of it’s people. But the nature of men makes peace rare, and war soon ravaged the country of Elsa. Blood soaked boots carved wide swaths through golden wheat fields, fires fueled by bloody bones and abandoned homes burned day and night, sending sickly smoke skyward until it snuffed out the sunlight, it’s pungent odor offending every living thing for a thousand miles around. The encroaching army that landed on serene shores and trampled through farmland did not look to surprise it’s opponent, it stomped and bellowed it’s way through the country, it’s only purpose to destroy the life and culture of Elsa, driven by a hate so dark it cared little for the lives of even it’s own soldiers. So marched this horror through every village and city until the only sanctuary left to fleeing Elsans was the capital city of Westland. There the invaders stood goading her finest defenders to fight for the lives of their wives and children, fight to the death knowing what the cost of defeat would mean to those left behind.

By day the black mass jeered, by night it poked and prodded the defenses of the city, driven on by its commander, King Judas Nestor the forsaken. When the tunnels carved under the city walls brought them down, his men rushed in to drag out every living citizen they could, and to the anguish of those who had made it safely behind the inner walls he tortured a thousand innocents as he called out Elsa’s last defender, Arathor Bullwye, the warrior king of Elsa. The invitation spawned a battle that climaxed with both armies spilling onto the plains of Noram, filling the naturally formed coliseum until the canyon floor undulated with the sway of soldiers in battle, patches of red charging into shades of blue, the sound of trumpets bellowing orders competing with the clashing of swords as men charged, banners flying. The soldiers in red fought for King Judas and wore the insignia of the Red Hammer. They were brutal and fearless, throwing themselves at their opponents in blue, who flew the banner of the Blue Rose, the army of King Bullwye and the free people of Elsa. The battle turned when from a cloudless sky came a bolt of blue lightening that struck the battling figure of King Bullwye, his form dissolving to ash in front of his champions. The usurper gave no quarter and ordered his men to slaughter to the last man all who wore the blue of Elsa. The men of the Rose fought outnumbered and besieged all around, but pride and bravery drove the sword with such withering ferocity that it seemed no mortal army could best them that day..

But black magic despises mortality, and accounts tell of slain soldiers in red that fell with fatal wounds only to rise again with sword in hand. The champions fought through blade and magic until exhaustion gripped them and death overtook them. The dark king tore apart the remaining defenses, taking the sword to every man, woman and child, then relentlessly tracked the fleeing family of the slain king into the deep of the forest until with great celebration he held above his head the crying babe that was the last of the royal bloodline. As he swung the terrified child into the fire pit, roaring louder than the screams from the flames he pledged to wipe the memory of Elsa from the pages of history. For the rest of his short life the savage king made sport of tracking down Elsans with the relish of the hunter to the fox. To this day his evil progeny still offer a reward of gold for the capture or killing of anyone thought to possess Elsan blood.

The Historians of Nestor claim that none wearing the blue standard left the battlefield alive the day lightening killed Elsa’s warrior king, but rumor whispered that one of honor did survive, critically wounded but obscured by the countless dead that covered the bloody battlefield. Of all the kings champions there was one who was his most prized, a tenacious knight who brought not only the skill of the sword but nature’s fury as well, coming to battle flanked by tigers and wolves and predators from the air. He was an army to himself. In that final battle he was one of the last to fall, and left among the dead he was pulled from the carnage by a dying black wolf, dragged back into the thick of the forest. Many weeks he lay hidden deep in the boroughs of the wood, nursed by the wild until he regained his strength. Long after his physical wounds healed he suffered still from wounds borne by soldiers who live to see their king fall before them. After long wandering he came to accept that for him the war was over, his people had suffered grievously, it was now time to protect the few that survived. He settled upon finding a wife, a strong woman that would ensure that his bloodline survived, for he believed that within him was a power only the Gods granted, a power that one day would be reborn through his bloodline and begin anew the fight that would bring freedom back to his people.

It has been two hundred years since the last fell defending Westland, today the city is populated by the people of Nestor who migrated here after the conquest to take advantage of the vacant homes and prepared fields. From afar the huge city has an unseemly red glow to it, a trait the superstitious claim was earned when countless thousands of defenseless Elsans were murdered in their homes. Migrating Nestorians who come to choose their new home in Westland often find a cowering skeleton crouching in a back room of an empty home, it’s yellowed skull with hollow eyes upturned, a figure frozen in terror, capturing with it’s final vision the face of it’s executioner. It’s thought to be an ill omen, and few men would put his family in a blood house. But one can find for a gold coin or two those who will cleanse any home of it’s tortured souls. Still, the red glow remains. Years pass and the population grows, but still most of the city’s cobbled stone streets lead only to haunted houses where upon the wind ride the faint echoes of a people long gone.

Living among these usurpers there is a secret community of Elsan men and women who make no mention of their outlawed heritage, not even to their children. It is a secret worthy of execution, and one must acknowledge the sentence for such a heritage before they are initiated into the knowing. So few are willing now to bear that burden.

Tales of avenging heroes are dismissed by Nestorians as the last gasp of a failed race, but misery feeds such stories and it gives the descendants of the lost kingdom hope. Elsa. A country stripped of it’s protectors, it’s people hunted and it’s history relegated to the whispers of those dwindling few who sing outlawed poems. In them survives the heart of a nation, and the prophecy of freedom come home on the rays of the red dawn.

Verse 36

War Wolf, red reaper, first to battle
Savage blue blades, he welcomes bloodshed
bringing beasts to prey, gifted he
The Wolf Hearted
He fought the foe, Black host, hell’s pirate
So many the wolf brought low, but not Hell’s servant
The hero dies.

He lives!

- Elsan lore

Chapter 1

The setting sun signaled an end to the days’ work, the tall, muscular silhouette waving in his sons from the fields stood stark against the wide blue sky. Calib Ambolin was a man well respected by those that knew him, and those who didn’t saw in his deep green eyes integrity and strength. He was intimidating to be sure, but the smile that spent so much time on his face disarmed even the pettiest of men. With his hardy wife he had two sons, brown haired and broad Tam the oldest at 18 and Jared, now 16 years old and growing rapidly. Jared was born looking strikingly different that anyone in his family, long black hair that fell over a tanned face with wide green eyes and a strong jawline. He was thin but strong, and had not yet begun to fill out the lanky body that promised to be imposing with age. Together the three gathered the day’s bounty and headed for home, to a stone house that sat alone among manicured fields a few of miles outside the of Westland, the Red City.

As they walked the path that cut through their fields, Tam recited the news he had picked up on his latest trip into Westland. He talked of fall festivals and winter meetings, of church denunciations and political chicanery. Calib was good friends with the mayor of Westland, Theoron Meriandor, hardly a week went by without some correspondence. All that was important to know, Calib was privy to. All that was salacious, Tam was sure to know. To walk a mile with Tam was to age a year.

Jared listened intently. He wasn’t one to talk much, though he was no good at hiding what he felt. The sing song nature of Tam’s voice blended nicely with the low, serene voice of his father, which in turn melted into the cascade of chirps and whistles sounding from the nature around them. A long cooing snatched his attention, and he watched a pair of young grey squirrels wrestling among the leaves. A raven landed lightly on a branch above them, casually watching as the two below rolled around on the forest floor oblivious to eyes that spied them. The black bird sidestepped along the branch as it pondered its chances, bobbing its head, its black eyes sparkling with optimism.

“ I saw Bhalin’s daughter near the tannery. That one there, looks like a handful - but what a beauty.” Tam rambled on. He saw his brother daydreaming and gave him a halfhearted punch to the shoulder. “ Girls. I’m talking about girls...” he said sarcastically.

Jared smiled at the ribbing. He hadn’t seen Bhalin or his family in years, though he often heard of them through his father. He couldn’t remember what they all looked like, but he was sure they remembered him. Everyone remembered what Jared looked like. The smell of dinner riding upon the breeze broke him from his musing in time to hear Tam mention the herd of wild horses driven into Bhalin’s stables.

Tonight they were coming home a bit early. They had finished most of the work they had to, the spring had been busy. This weekend had been the New Spring celebration, where everyone in the city ate and drank for free throughout the city. It was the beginning of the year, and the bounty one gave was sure to be returned at harvest time. Jared had spent his two days off hiking up to the peaks above the city. He made it a slow climb to the lowest peak, spread out his blanket and ate his meals looking over the glowing lights of Westland. As the sun fell he looked out into the Plains of Noram, imagining the battles that once raged there. His imagination was vivid, the scenes of his mind were like the memories of one there, even inspiring in him the feelings of rage and fear and hope they had felt. His imagination was both a curse and a blessing, it had been that way his whole life. It was much of the reason he liked to spend so much time alone, among the wildlife that lived among the trees. His lucid mind and his shocking appearance made the forest the safest place to be, far away from the city and its people. So he watched the celebration from afar, and did not miss them.

The dinner table was cleared and a cover thrown over it, and soon from the kitchen came the food, bowls of potatoes and carrots steamed, grilled seasoned meat and warm garlic bread. A pie teased the room with it’s scent. The men clamored in and sat themselves down, at once filling the peaceful fire lit room with the warm, rambunctious sounds of family. As the plates were cleared and the pie passed out Calib cast a last glance at mother and announced his decision to send Jared to Bhalin’s to apprentice as a horse trader. The noisy room became very quiet as the words fought their way through the lingering scent of the pie sitting hot on the table between them all. It was a discussion that the boys had followed since the idea had been floated months before. The parents had taken opposite sides on the issue, his mother Kia insisting that Jared remain home while his father felt the time had come, the boy couldn’t spend his whole life doddering on the farm. He had given up trying to teach Jared farming, the boy had no interest in it, he was always to be found tending to the animals or slipping into the wood that surrounded the property. Both of the parents had kept him close to home and he hardly ever took more than a few steps toward the city, especially after the incident at the Fork years ago. Calib announced that early the next morning the two of the them would be heading to Bhalin’s stables by way of the city road, which would take them through the middle of the city to the far side.

The news brought both thrill and dread to Jared - the chance to learn the horse trade would take him out of the fields and put him among the animals, where he belonged. From an early age it was evident that he had a gift for taming the wild, his father would attest. But he bristled at the term ‘ taming,’ he was hardly tame himself, or so his father would also attest. He just knew instinctively how to make an animal comfortable with him, he knew how to ease their fears. Those times he had successfully escaped his father’s attention and disappeared into the forest were hours he treasured. He would spend them sitting on the forest floor drawing to himself animals of every kind. He found that if he concentrated hard enough sometimes he could bring even the most shy to his hand to sniff the snack he was offering. How he did these things he didn’t know, but he felt he was in his element when surrounded by the trees, meandering through the forest attracting creatures great and small, hunter and prey. Among the many that knew him, one beast kept its distance but ever had its eyes on him. Black wolves. Sometimes many of them, more often just a few. Never was there any threat from them, in fact the opposite seemed true, the watched him with a protectiveness that bordered on familial. But they would not approach him, though he had tried to coax them. He soon came to know that they were never very far from him, circling silently, watching constantly. The thought comforted him. So it came to be that very early in his life he knew that if ever he was forced to choose between the company of man or animals ( except for his family ), he would choose animals because they treated him for who he was, not for what he looked like.

That thought tempered Jared’s excitement. Animals may not care what he looked like, but people certainly did. Jared had been born with a sprawling red birthmark across his face, a pitted, bulbous mass of skin that started at his forehead and crept across his nose and covered his cheek. Amongst strangers, it was all they would stare at, the faces they would make made him feel an outcast. The times he ventured into the city children would run from him, pointing their fingers, some laughing with cruel delight, others cringing in fear, still others mocking him as some of the boys did by squashing tomatoes on their foreheads and clumsily dancing around in front of him. He was nothing but the blood red mark on his face to them, they did not see a person, a boy, soon to be a man. They only saw deformity. The humiliation impressed upon him the callousness of people, for there were no natural allies, the ugly and the beautiful cursed him, the tall and the short ridiculed him, skinny and fat, young and old, sober or drunken sot, all saw in him the mark of pain, loneliness, ungodliness. They spurned him like one would spurn disease or disgrace. When he was young he had not taken the judgement gracefully, now he spent his days on the farm and in the forest behind it, a self imposed banishment from the city of mysterious spires and tolling bells. The only new faces he saw were the hired hands his father brought from the city, their gawking stares and the nudging elbows of their comrades made seeing him a gross ritual to the uninitiated. Now his father spoke of walking through the city, unleashing visions of degradation, of him trudging through the streets like some circus freak escaped from his cage. In his daydreams among the pines and the sycamores he saw himself cured by a drop of liquid gold, unveiling for all to see how wrong they were to think him deformed and a harbinger of ill luck. They would see he was just a regular guy. But he knew these dreams were the worse kind of fantasy. The faces gone pale on the young girls who looked at him stung deep enough to shatter illusions. It took a mountain of discipline to not answer the unkindness with his own. He wondered to himself as his gaze fell to the floor whether he wanted to work with horses more than he wanted to avoid being the star of a passing freak show.

His father looked down knowingly on Jared as the boy sat staring down on his food, brooding; the sight caused him to lower his head as well. But a second later he lifted his head and with a another sideways glance at Kia he cleared his throat and announced ” Tomorrow morning we’ll be out early, so fill a pack with enough to last you a few weeks. ”

“ Do we have to walk through the middle of town, can’t we go around the village, through the forest?” Jared blurted out, slowly looking up at his dad, his shoulders sagging as his hands slipped inside his pockets.

“ Son, that would add hours to the trip. What’s wrong with taking the main road?” His father replied, knowing the answer to question he asked.

“ The people, they hate me, they say terrible things and I don’t want to hear it.”

“ They don't hate you, Jared, they don’t even know you. They're mean because they're afraid of you, son. You don’t want to hurt anyone, so soon they will see that you're nobody to be afraid of,” said his father as he lifted a forkful of pie to his mouth, but his son just sat there with his long black hair swaying from side to side in disagreement.

“ I think not, father, I've never danced in front of an angry black bear because I was afraid of it. The boys in town will mock me for my birthmark.”

" If I remember correctly the last angry bear you met spent two weeks on our front porch waiting for you to play with him, I was deprived of your help in the fields because of an angry black bear,” he replied, bringing a bashful grin to Jared’s face at the memory. He bent down close and looked into his son’s green eyes, his finger traced the dark birthmark. Then he kissed it. “ I love you son, and the mark on you that makes you special. You are destined for great things, that’s what I think it means. I am sure of it.”

“ I know, father,” Jared replied, having heard his father say that too many times. It had stopped making him feel better long ago. “ But the people in town don’t agree, because I don’t look like everybody else. I don’t want to be special, I want to be like everyone else.”

"You will never be like anyone else! Nobody is like anyone else!" his father returned curtly. “ Tomorrow we’ll be walking through town, I think soon you will see that I am right, that the experienced earned is it's own reward.”